Slam poetry is a genre. Or how to avoid slam clichés…
I saw someone share Canadian poet Chris Gilpin’s blog from last year arguing that we need to avoid “adopting the term ‘slam poet’”. Slam poetry, he says, is not a ‘genre’. It’s a way of running an open mic and it’s an international movement, emerging historically with the aim of freeing poetry from the “elite cultural gatekeepers”. It is excellent critique and I hope it is read far and wide by young poets who engage in live performance. Gilpin complains:
“Aspiring slam participants (and apparently even those who have no interest in participating) … copy the most obvious elements of performance cliché—yelling, speed, tones of distress, waving their arms—believing that they are correctly recreating a cool, new poetic style. In this way, the idea of slam poetry has crushed a great deal of artistic self-expression, encouraging poets to conform to something they can’t even define.”
The fact that he can describe a set of conventions in writing and delivery which are followed by its producers and recognised by its consumers suggests that ‘slam poetry’ has become a genre. And that genre is a bit wack. Can we turn back the tide? I’ve been running slams for ten years now in the UK, so I thought I’d give some tips for fellow poets to consider.
- Content: Go against the current, don’t follow the trends
The internet was supposed to be a way for us to create our own content. Instead we have social media, owned by two or three multinational companies, through which we “will as tenderly be led by th’ nose / As asses are” to comment on what’s trending. Trends are created, and we follow them and sustain them. The scandals come and go and are forgotten as quickly as the next one emerges. If you write a poem about Jane Goody calling her fellow celebrity big brother contestant ‘Shilpa Poppadum’, Justin Bieber announcing that “Anne Frank would have been a belieber” or #BritsSoWhite, who is going to remember what all the fuss was about in three years’ time? Did you capture the changing flows and momentum of society? Or were you just a rhyming version of the comments section on forgotten news ‘events’? And in these hashtag poems, what are you doing other than perpetuating the story that the media and the pop industry is selling in order to cash in on attention (i.e. more clicks, more views, more money from advertisers)?
“There is a time when the operations of the machine become so odious, make you so sick at heart that you can’t take part, you can’t even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” – Mario Savio, quoted in Play Power, Richard Neville, 1970
The great thing about slams is that they encourage poets to write about real and important issues, not pretentious musings about the mortality of their naval. “Every man’s turd smells well in’s own nose,” wrote John Marston in 1604, but when you’ve got a live audience in front of you, you’ve got to entertain. Yet if you want to be more than just disposable entertainment, the trick is to find stories outside of the self-contained loop of social and traditional media. Give voice to the non-trending trends. Present them back to the public so that they realise the “deeper, unnamed feelings” they did not previously have words for. You the poet, the crafter of words, can do this for us.
“It might be mad obvious to point out
but aren’t you supposed to talk about the shit nobody’s talking about?”
- Emotions: Don’t exploit your own, or anyone else’s suffering to guilt-trip the audience.
This age is an individualist, celebrity-obsessed one. Children born in the year that Blair came to power will turn 19 this year. Neo-liberalism and hyper-connectivity have been facts of their universe since birth. Passionate expressions of personal hardship overcome win slams, but there are enough Hollywood movies that tell that story to occupy a lifetime. Within the medium of competition, we must still find something that looks to motivate us beyond the ‘compete and succeed’ paradigm.
As A. Sivanandan says: “Any struggles of the oppressed, be it blacks or women, which are only for themselves… are inevitably self-serving and narrow and unable to enlarge the human condition. … The question for me is: what is it in the black and Third World experience, in the experience of the oppressed and the exploited, that gives one the imagination to see other oppressions and the will to fight for a better society for all, a more equal, just, free society, a socialist society?”
- Don’t try and win slams!
Three years ago, I defended slams against Michael Horovitz and the 1960’s anti-competition critique. I cited T. S. Eliot to lend some weight to my argument:
“According to T.S.Eliot, the job of the critic is the “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste”. At a slam the judges don’t have much time for elucidation – they simply provide a score. The correction of taste, as I think Eliot is saying, is an endless debate. Is Eliot better than Pound? McGough or Patten? LKJ or Jean Binta Breeze? There may not be an answer but it’s worth having the debate because by discussing the merits of one poem over another, that’s what leads us to the elucidation.”
I stand by that. At the recent Hammer & Tongue National Final, I had long conversations with young poets who wanted to talk about who was where in the poetry slam hierarchy – “There’s Kate Tempest and George the Poet then there’s X, then there’s Y” – but spent surprisingly little time talking about the poets’ styles and whether or not they liked them. This was neither elucidation, nor correction of taste, it was categorising status. Slams are a gimmick, the main thing is to provide a platform for poets to develop their art and for audiences to become better listeners. “The point is not the points, the point is the poetry,” is the slam cliché. Can it stay meaningful when poems are written deliberately to win them? This new generation of poets were talking strategy and plotting their route to victory. Some older poets almost deliberately self-sabotaged by choosing to deliver poems that were weird, difficult or eccentric. They lost. So what? At least they had their art and may have found some admirers.
Ask a great writer why they write; it is not to please anyone. Take Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze:
“when he asked me about the mechanics
why I write
what’s my theme
I answered without scheme
that I woke one early morning and just heard it
that the voice then asked the pen to please record it
so I simply wrote the words that came to visit”
That’s from a poem called ‘Interview’ from 2011. Here is an actual interview with Stevie Smith from 1966, where pretty much the same idea is expressed, slightly less mystically:
“My poems were written from the experiences of my own life, its pressures and fancies. And they are written to give ease and relief to me. While they are being written, nobody else comes into it at all. I want to get something out that is working away at me inside”
- Money: Forget about it.
This generosity is not, I believe, due to poets being some special breed of artists, full of peace and love for their fellow poets. Artists have always been jealous, perhaps even more so than normal humans. Look at acting and visual arts to see the kind of bitterness that exists between the mass of those who are struggling to make a living and the elite few who are massively overpaid. Hopefully, you see here what makes the difference. If poetry actually becomes a profitable business; when, like stand-up comedy, it moves from a backroom-of-a-pub, rage-against-The-Man kind of activity, to Michael McIntyre on Saturday night TV and Wembley arena, then winning slams will mean more than just pride and you will see jealousy rage uncontrolled. Naturally so. The differential between the talent of those ‘at the top’ and the rest of us will not be proportionate to our incomes.
As the entertainment industry starts to get interested in poetry, as it once did in an underground black art form called hip hop, we should heed KRS’s words of warning from 20 years ago: “it might sound contradictory or funny / but MCs need to find other ways of making money.”
This is not to say poets should not be paid for their art. For as long as we live in a money-based economy, then of course they should. It is a skilled labour that every human society we know about has considered worth doing. And money does not just come to you, you have to hustle for it. There is a difference, though, between persuading funders, venues or promoters to put on your work because you think it’s worth putting on and writing something that you think will please the funder. If now you are writing to win slams, when cash prizes and TV appearances become available, you will also write to win them too, and, as we all know, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
5. Read More
The first ‘proper poet’ I met was my school friend’s dad, a Hungarian poet and refugee from the Soviet repression of the 1956 uprising. I said to him, sharing my 17 year old wisdom, ‘I think to avoid sounding like anyone else, you’ve either got to read nothing or read everything.’ He looked at me sternly. ‘No,’ he growled, ‘you must read everything.’
‘Finding your own voice’ is by no means straightforward. Let us listen to a scientist about how language works: “we speak in the voices of our communities, and to the extent that we have individual voices, we fashion them out of the social voices already available to us, appropriating the words of others to speak a word of our own.”
People who write poems once or twice in their life for someone’s birthday or Valentine’s Day will write in cliché. They do not know the clichés, they just find that when they write a poem it follows a certain rhyme scheme and metrical pattern. They “speak in the voices” of all the collective history of nursery rhyme, ballad, riddle, folk song, Horatian ode, etc. They cannot ‘fashion’ an individual poetic voice because they do not yet know the social voice. Naturally enough, slam poets who have only watched Def Jam poetry will be cast in the same mould.
There is no other art form where practitioners are so uneducated in the precedents. I don’t know any rappers who cannot talk at least a little bit about the history of their genre. Stand-up comics swat up on the work of other comedians. Yet there are performance poets out there who don’t know their Mutabaruka from their Adrian Mitchell. Tim Wells is one poet currently chronicling some of the oral history of the scene. It may be performance poetry, but listening is as important as speaking.
I started writing, like many artists (especially of the less-than-genius kind), by imitation. The biggest influences in my teenage years were Kurt Cobain, Wilfred Owen, an American ‘60s beat poet by the name of d.a.levy, KRS One and Murray Lachlan Young. I could explain what the conditions of my upbringing were that led me to these writers, why they appealed to my temperament at the time and how they shaped my writing, but this is not the place. From friends, from my dad, from religion and Radio 1 I got hold of writers who made a major impression on me. From this heterogeneous jumble, I became a poet.
In the back of a Horovitz-edited book called ‘Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Great Britain’ which I think I got in a charity shop around that time, our editor quotes the Times Literary Supplement from 1961, “Poets like Mr [Christopher] Logue and Mr Horovitz and others have done something most valuable in luring jazz-conscious audiences to listen to genuine poetry and find that they can get the same kind of fun, and even the same kind of kick out of it, as they get from music.” This was also my experience at Hammer & Tongue. One of the first poets I saw featured there was Mark Gwynne Jones, still one of my favourite contemporary poets. After the show I approached him:
‘I like the way you read your poems.’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked me, ‘I just read them.’
For Mark, like Logue decades earlier, “poetry and the spoken performance of it were never separated in my mind”
Live poetry changed the way I wrote poetry. Slams gave me the opportunity to discover how bad my writing was and to go back and try again. My influences expanded and diversified. Still to this day I seek out new models and new ideas. I host slams and occasionally enter them.
Young people today come across slam poetry and start writing it. Of course, now as then, it is still a minority who get into live poetry, but for those of us who did so in the pre-internet age, we had found poetry through our own interests and then discovered slam as a place to try it out.
Like Gilpin, I find it concerning that young poets are becoming ever more like each other. I am worried by a poet whose list of favourite poets includes only modern performance poets from UK or North America. Many seem in thrall to the saccharine emotions and tone-deaf writing of Shane Koycsan. They substitute finger-clicking puns for imagery. The political message is to look inside yourself, love yourself, be yourself, don’t worry about what others think of you. This is OK up to a point, a necessary self-care in response to the humiliations of imperialist, capitalist, heteronormative patriarchy, but we also need something that breaks the confines of ‘because you’re worth it’ individualism. They could do with a dose of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s reality:
An’ dem bline dem eye
To di lite a di worl’
An’ gaan search widin…
Instead a fite fi win
I had the massive advantage of academic confidence and an elitist education. I had the privilege of being male and the luck to have strong women in my family. I had some other disadvantages. However, I know from a decade of teaching, from autodidacts I have met and from the discussion and self-education groups I have been at and from the history of that movement, that we can educate ourselves. We do not have to be intimidated by academic terms and titles. When you find an author who speaks to you, you will be able to look up the difficult words. In any case if that author speaks to you, you will generally find that they use plain terms that you can easily understand.
If we want to break out of the conventions of a genre that might come round to trap us we need to do away this Anglo-Saxon anti-intellectualism and class deference that make people think that they cannot learn as well as their betters.
“But if I speak straight out and say:
Infatuates to local immortality. . .
Distinguished each from each by baby pains
You measure against baby pain . . . you stand
To lose the earth, and look alike
As if you spat each other out, you say:
Logue grinds his axe again. He’s red.
Or cashing in. And you are right.
I have an axe to grind. Compared to you,
I’m red and short of cash. So what?”
To my fellow artists, Christopher Logue, 1958
 Jay Lemke, Textual Politics: Discourse and Social Dynamics. Taylor & Francis, 1995.